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Minimum age rule offers no help to NCAA

NBA Commissioner David Stern's new great idea to fix all that ails the basketball world also happens to be a bad one, full of the illogical reasoning of a man who's been on top too long to remember how he got there. The minimum age requirement for entrance into the NBA-and its fervent supporters-smacks of hypocrisy, racism, trouble-shooting, and that most NBA of adjectives, greed.

The commish is upset about the exodus of great college basketball players into His league after their freshmen and sophomore years; even high schoolers increasingly are getting into the act. Mississippi high schooler Jonathan Bender didn't even consider the pros until he broke Michael Jordan's scoring record at the McDonald's All-Star Game. Duke frosh phenom Corey Maggette didn't think about leaving until he read a Chicago Tribune story saying he could be the No. 1 pick.

Their rewards? Lottery picks and guaranteed seven-figure contracts. No wonder a Kentucky high school junior is thinking about foregoing his final year of high school next spring. Indiana even traded a proven veteran in Antonio Davis for Bender's draft rights. Given the Pacers' success with last year's high school draft pick, Al Harrington, who can blame them?

So now Stern says he wants to stop the flood. The only problem is, he won't admit he started it.

The rookie wage-scale set in place a few years back sews up a young player's earnings potential for between three and five years. These guys want to start earning the real big bucks as early as possible, and a seven-year contract at, say, 21 means at least two more big money contracts at 28 and 33 or 34. A guy stays all four years, he's locked up until he's 25. He might be able to get the same dollars, but a 36-year-old's creaky knees are unlikely to get the same response as he would have three years prior.

The problem is that the league, basking in the late Jordan-era wonderland of television money and high-priced luxury seating, ignored the symbiotic relationship of college and pro basketball. They absolutely and completely depend on each other. While college ball isn't exactly hurting for dough, think of who might have participated in the ACC Tournament last March: Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Stephon Marbury, even Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, who both might have been ACC-bound if not for the lure of the big bucks.

So the wage-scale was the first line of defense, implemented with the logic that less money won't offer as great a siren call to the college player. But a million per year is still enough money for a kid to take care of his family, particularly if he's taken in the first round, which offers guaranteed contracts. Once that guaranteed contract expires, even if he's a journeyman pro, he can still pull in a seven-figure salary.

But now Stern says no more. He draws the line. He talks of a minimum age requirement of 21. Many point to the NFL's decision not to allow juniors and say, "A-ha! Precedent!"

The two situations are completely different; the difference between an 18-year-old and 21-year-old NFL body is almost unfathomable; the NBA difference can be almost negligible. The tradition of high schoolers and underclassmen playing in the NBA dates back to the 1960s, when the ABA/NBA salary wars drew a slew of young guns to the pros.

Maturity, court-savvy and fundamentals are the only thing the pros can't teach. Kids like Bender and the Raptors' Tracy McGrady can get easily lost in a man's shuffle, with no college coaching and support staff to coddle them. Some will hit, some will miss. That's the way it is with all draft picks, regardless of how long they stay in college. High schoolers are, admittedly, much riskier than seasoned college veterans. But the trade of experience for potential is a risk that general managers are willing to take. If they didn't want high schoolers and underclassmen, they wouldn't keep drafting them.

But to say that these prep players, who absolutely have NBA-level ability and athleticism, cannot get paid to play until they turn 21 is ludicrous.

It's inane to say it's okay for a white preteenage girl to figure skate for millions of dollars, that it's okay for golfers and tennis players to turn pro, but that it's wrong in the case of predominantly black basketball players. While I'm sure Stern is not racially motivated, it is an inadvertent but hypocritical double standard that cannot be tolerated.

Stern and his general managers dug themselves into this hole a long time ago, and they just keep digging. Stern's latest plan suggests it's getting too deep to see the light.

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